Know thyself. This tiny phrase, coined by the ancient Greeks, remains evergreen. But for an emerging wine region, how does one go about figuring out its identity? Respecting the alchemy of terroir and grape varieties is obviously paramount, but how much do trends dictate the varieties, the styles, or even the practices of up-and-coming AVAs, and possibly define a region?
The Variety Variable
Siblings Beverly and Michael Williamson, along with their cousin Patrick, run Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho. The state is redefining what people think about when it comes to Pacific Northwest winemaking; the Snake River Valley AVA, where Williamson is located, even encompasses both Idaho and Oregon land. It’s a region defined by little rainfall, volcanic soils, and a high mountain desert climate. The Williamson family farm, established in 1909, planted its first vineyards in 1998. In addition to bottling and selling its own estate wine, the family cultivates vinifera for others, which constitutes a big part of their business. Currently, 16 varieties grow on their 60-plus-acre property and they are often at the forefront of what’s trending.
Before planting vines for a potential client, they ask winemakers to think about what they are going to want in five to 10 years because what’s fashionable now may not be en vogue when a vine starts hitting its stride. “We’re a small industry and a lot of the wineries are like, ‘Well, I want something different. I want to stand out. I don’t want to have the same thing as everyone else,’” says Patrick, the vineyard manager. Often it means making clients understand that varieties like cool-climate Pinot Gris don’t work in Snake River Valley’s arid, hot summer climate. But it’s not just about growing conditions.
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“Being right next to Oregon [which is known for Pinot Gris], we’re then stepping in and competing with them,” says Beverly, who handles sales and marketing. The family has also turned down requests to plant Chardonnay, “Just because there’s an abundance of it,” they say. To them, it’s finding the sweet spot of something unique that fits their climate.
Like much of the country, Arizona had vines pre-Prohibition, but it’s only been in the last couple of decades that a serious industry has emerged — Verde Valley, its third AVA, was just granted status in December 2022. But those who try those desert wines can become their biggest champions.
Pavle Milic made a name for himself as beverage director and restaurateur at Scottsdale hotspot FnB Restaurant. The list there is largely comprised of Arizona wineries and earned a James Beard nomination — twice: in 2017 and 2020. Now as a winemaker, Milic has doubled down on proving Arizona wine is a force to be reckoned with. “There’s a liberating aspect of making wine in Arizona, which is we are not beholden to any specific trend or anything that’s going on in other markets,” says the fast-talking, Queens, N.Y.-raised Milic.
With its high-altitude vineyards, high pH soils, and short growing seasons due to monsoons, Arizona’s terroir can be challenging. “So we grow — not necessarily what I want to grow, not necessarily what I believe is going to be trendy — but what we can grow here,” says Milic.
But running a winery is still a business. During the pandemic, Boise, Idaho, saw an influx of new residents moving to the area, says Meredith Smith, winemaker at Ste. Chappelle and Sawtooth Winery in the Snake River AVA. And with them came their thirst for certain wines. “We see what varietals are popular, which ones are selling out, and which ones can’t we keep up with,” she says. “And that influences our grape- growing decisions.”
Stalwarts like Cabernet do well for the wineries, and Smith says Tempranillo, a rising star grape in the AVA, continues to sell out quickly. Currently, she is in trials with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, which she calls “wild cards,” given that they are later-ripening varieties. Previously, she purchased these varieties from Washington State (a saving grace for many in Idaho after a disastrous frost in 2017), and based on the success of the wines in the tasting room, led her experiment with them in Idaho.
Smith’s congenial and laid-back attitude belies the wineries’ importance in the state: Ste. Chappelle and Sawtooth are the No. 1 and No. 2 producers by volume (80,000–100,000 cases for Ste. Chappelle and 15,000 for Sawtooth) in all of Idaho. As they are owned by Precept Wine, one of the largest wine companies in the Pacific Northwest, they are also pretty much the only wines you’ll see in distribution outside of Idaho. If only one or two wineries carry the torch for an entire region, how does that affect drinkers’ perceptions of a region’s identity?
The Pét-Nat Paradox
Just as much as the opportunities to experiment with varieties make winemakers salivate, so do winemaking techniques. Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks in Sonoita, Ariz., is a staunch supporter of growing the correct varieties for his terroir. But when it comes to vinification, his mad scientist side comes out. “We don’t try to follow trends, but obviously, you see stuff, and it would be ignorant not to see how you could apply it to what you do,” Bostock says.
Pét-nats, orange wine, canned wine — he’s tried them all, with varying degrees of success. “We can totally be inspired by what’s happening in other regions, but we have to reinterpret it for where we are,” he says. “You should be adding to the conversation. If not, what’s the point? We’re not going to displace Champagne or Napa Cabernet from store shelves. The world needs another almost-as-good-as-Bordeaux knockoff like it needs a hole in the head.”
Is Thinking Sustainably the Secret?
Beyond customer preferences and winemaking techniques, the biggest trend driver may be climate change. Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre in Paso Robles, Calif., is increasingly focused on white varieties, such as Ugni Blanc and Picpoul. “A grape like Picpoul has survived 2,000 years in Châteauneuf-du-Pape because it can handle that climate,” he says. “It always produces what it’s needed for, which is its brightness and acidity.” Pease notes it can handle the heat spikes that are becoming commonplace. “People are thirsty for it, and it’s so perfect for climate change and our future going forward.”
Pease doubled his acreage of Ugni Blanc in the last three years and is also focusing his attention on Vermentino. He, along with other winemakers, are so convinced by the Italian grape’s potential they created an informal “Vermentino Summit,” where they taste, discuss, and learn from each other.
Perhaps trends have nothing to do with grapes at all. The Southwest Wine Center at Yavapai College in the Verde Valley of Arizona considers itself the UC Davis of desert winemaking. As the Arizona wine industry grows, so has an interest in viniculture. The campus boasts vineyards, a working winery, and a tasting room where visitors can try an array of students’ projects.
Part of the curriculum is business and marketing. Michael Pierce, viticulture and enology director, says, “I’m always wondering, ‘What the heck is the next trend, though?’ Is it going to be sustainable packaging? The younger generations are thinking about carbon footprint and different cultural ways to exist.” He often asks his students to consider what if packaging weren’t always a cork and glass bottle and what alternatives could look like.
Being a Trendsetter
On the flip side of all this, can a region create a trend? Provence rosé. Napa Cabernet. Beaujolais Nouveau: At one time or another, these styles helped define a region. Is there a way to capture this magic in a bottle again?
Despite the plethora of ideas that students bring to the classroom, Pierce is doubtful. “It’s not like we’re all going to be able to do what California did 40 years ago,” he says. “There are so many regions. It’s like how there are nice food scenes almost everywhere now.”
But Pease, who puts what he’s doing in the context of the ascension of red Rhône varieties that defined Paso starting in the late 1990s, thinks it possible. “People are still seeking new,” he says. “They want to learn. We educate them on why Picpoul adds tropical fresh notes to Rhône whites — how they help Roussanne.” And he has proof. “I think there’s a huge future in these grapes. I can’t plant enough and I can’t make enough of it,” he says.
“If I were to answer the question, ‘How do you establish an identity?’ I think it’s by focusing inward and knowing what you can do for the place you’re at,” says Bostock of Dos Cabezas. “If it ever goes beyond that, that’s a huge bonus. But if it doesn’t, [you still have something] you can feel really good about.”